Author’s Note: Everyone has questions for Cress. Not even he has the answers, though.
“So… level with me. How good are you?”
Cress looked over at the fire elemental, shrugging. “Good is a matter of definition, and in most cases, I’d say it doesn’t apply to me. I am by no means perfect. I have a greater deal of control over my element than most. I think that is the most accurate assessment of what I am.”
“Yeah, but they tell me that your parents were behind a lot of… manipulation, and that they might even have been working for Aether. What do you think they were trying to do?”
Cress pulled himself to his feet. “I don’t pretend to know what went on inside their heads. Even their emotions were usually kept from me. A few occasions were clear and sharp and still sting—like when they found out I’d broken a mirror their excitement was almost overwhelming, especially since that was the first time I knew I had any sort of… talent for that. At least… it was the first time I recognized it for what it was. I’d been terrified by what happened and my hand wouldn’t stop bleeding, but they were ready to start jumping up and down and cheering. Sickening, really, when I think about it, so I try not to. They did put on a good show for a long time. The older we got, the less they seemed like loving parents and more like dictators, and signs of it were showing outside the walls of our house. Not all of it was clear, though. Most of that comes from hindsight. That is, as they say, a bitch.”
“I should take offense to that,” Moira said, and Cress laughed. He’d never have called her that, even as tough as she was. She was not one of those women it was easy to know, even having been her neighbor and leader for years and despite his empathic gifts, but he knew that description didn’t fit.
“No, you shouldn’t.”
Her lips curved into a smile, and Sherwin frowned. “You two better not be flirting.”
Cress gave Moira a look, and she obliged, sending a gust of wind to her brother that knocked him on his butt. Sometimes, Sherwin was the biggest idiot Cress had ever known. A part of him was tempted to keep up the “flirting” with Moira just to piss him off, but Cress had never been that type of person. He couldn’t pull it off for long enough, anyway. Moira was a good friend, she supported him and shouldered a lot of the burden of leadership, but that was all they shared.
It might have been easier if Cress was interested in her that way.
“Better your parents would have had something to say about that,” the fire rogue said, and Cress frowned as he looked back at him. “Well, your sister says you’re purebred water. Can’t imagine that they’d like the idea of you taking up with air.”
“They made it quite clear that I was only supposed to be interested in someone who was water, yes. The same went for just about everyone—they expected us to stick to our element. More purebreds. Not sure why, though. They didn’t exactly explain. They just ordered.”
“And they could order you around?”
“I could have killed them. I’m not a killer.”
“You didn’t leave, either.”
“And let Occie or any of the others deal with it without me? None of us were old enough to be without a legal guardian, and since everyone else’s parents were conveniently dead, ours had custody of everyone. Considering what they wanted to do to Enya, leaving was out of the question.” Cress rubbed the back of his neck. “If I had more resources at the time, I might have tried to get us all organized to leave, but we’d been fractured badly after Enya’s family died. Some of us were… scared of what she could do and wouldn’t have gone with her—and she was one who could not have been left behind. There were a few other rifts, too, though that was the main one.”
“Stone and I had a huge fight, Terra wouldn’t speak to me because I’d hurt him, and it even got to be a bit of a division between him and Cress. It…” Occie shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
Occie rolled her eyes. “If you must know, Mr. Nosy, Stone was in love with me. Always had been. He wanted to be involved with me, too. I… He was—It wasn’t possible, and I let him know that in no uncertain terms. Terra didn’t forgive me for that for a long time.”
Terra looked down at her hands. “One thing you never said in that whole tirade was that your parents had gone and betrothed you to someone else.”
“It wasn’t like I was going to marry the man my parents picked out for me. Ever. I didn’t need to mention that part.”
The firebug looked around at them. “Okay, since clearly no one’s going to go into the other division, I’m going for the elephant in the room… what did your parents want done to Enya?”
“She was never supposed to have survived that fire,” Cress said. “They were not interested in another generation of purebred fire elementals, and don’t ask me why because I don’t know.”
The words were almost an accusation, and Cress wanted to hurt the other man for his apparent perception. He’d grasped the concept that Sherwin still couldn’t seem to get—bastard—and understood. He knew exactly how things were.
“No. I don’t. Now if you excuse me, I have to go find some water and drown myself in it for a while. I suppose I’m stuck with the rain…”
“Not such a good idea. They can track that. I have.”
Cress grimaced. He turned to Moira. “Where are we? Anything nearby? It doesn’t have to be a lake. A river, a stream…”
“Give us a minute to find you something.”
Cress shook his head. “So help me, Enya, if you call me a fish again—”
“You promise to prove you’re not again?”
He frowned, not sure why she’d bring that memory of any of them up, and shook his head. “Just remember that I was always good at putting out your fires and ruining your day. I’m going to walk around and see if I feel anything outside.”
“I’ll come with you,” Occie said, coming to his side. He saw the worry in her eyes, wishing he could take it away, wishing Stone had listened to him when he told him to go and take her with him. She took his hand, and he forced a smile for her. “You know you shouldn’t even be on your feet after yesterday.”
“I’m fine. Or I will be once I’ve dunked myself in water for a while.”